Cassie Sharpe soars in a gold-medal tribute to Sarah Burke
PYEONGCHANG, South Korea (AP) — Cassie Sharpe won the gold medal. If she could divide it into pieces, there would be plenty of places to spread it around.
Part would go to Canada. Part would go to all the women who have pushed her sport so far. And a big part would go to Sarah Burke — the late, great Canadian superstar who pushed women’s ski halfpipe into the Olympics, where it never looked better than it did Tuesday.
Soaring into the sunshine, Sharpe captured Canada’s eighth gold medal of the Pyeongchang Games to edge out Marie Martinod, who now has two Olympic silver medals, also largely thanks to Burke.
Martinod is the 33-year old mom from France who was changing diapers by day and working at a disco by night. She came out of retirement when Burke knocked on her door in 2011 and told her it was time to start training again because halfpipe skiing was taking its show to the Olympics.
Not long after that, Burke was killed in a training accident.
Halfpipe skiing made its Olympic debut at the Sochi Games in 2014 . Burke’s parents and her husband, Rory Bushfield, brought Sarah’s ashes to Russia to have them spread across the mountains. A few nights later, they watched from the bottom as Sarah’s vision became reality.
Bushfield watched the 2018 contest from his house in Whistler, British Columbia. He said the moment was no less meaningful.
“Sarah gave her life for that,” he said. “It’s cool to sit back and enjoy it. It’s super-emotional for me.”
That Sharpe won only enhanced the feeling: “I could not be more proud of a Canadian,” he said.
Midway through the contest, Martinod stopped Sharpe as they were preparing for their final run, with only 3.2 points separating gold and silver and the result still hanging in the balance. Sharpe had only met Burke in passing, but she, like every woman on the halfpipe, is well aware of what the world champion and four-time Winter X Games champion did for their cause.
“Marie told me, ‘I feel you have the ability to carry on what Sarah was doing here,’” Sharpe said. “We are all here, and I wouldn’t be doing the tricks that I do, without her being in this sport.”
Given that, and the fact that Sharpe’s coach, Trennon Paynter, who used to coach Burke, was crying at the top, the 25-year-old champion can certainly be forgiven for not putting down the perfect victory lap after Marinod fell on her third trip down the halfpipe, sealing the win for Sharpe.
“When you’ve got your hard-as-nails coach up top in tears, it’s kind of hard to zone into what you’re doing,” Sharpe said. “But I didn’t give up the run. I did the 10 at the bottom. I mean, it was a victory lap, and I didn’t realize how much emotion would be going at that point.”
Sharpe’s winning trip had come minutes earlier, during her second run. She landed a pair of 900-degree spins, and wrapped it up with the left cork 1080 that sets her apart from the field.
“I got into this sport 15 years ago, and you could win a contest by doing a 540,” Martinod said. “It’s been a huge progression.”
Back in the day, the sport consisted of Martinod, Burke and maybe one or two other women. They would hang out near the halfpipe for the men’s contest, then drop in when the guys were done and hold their own competition, too.
Time passed. Burke kept pushing the envelope and bringing as many women along with her as she could.
“I got second to her at my first X Games, which was probably cooler for me than winning,” said American Brita Sigourney, who took the bronze medal Tuesday.
With every year that goes by, fewer of the women in the contests can say they knew Burke well.
“It almost becomes a Sarah mythology,” said Canada’s Roz Groenewoud, a good friend of Burke’s, who finished 10th.
And yet, her legacy lives on. At the opening ceremony, Groenewoud caught a glimpse of Korean halfpipe skier Yujin Jang carrying the flag with the Olympic rings.
“I thought, ‘Wow, that’s really cool.’ It made me think of Sarah a lot,” Groenewoud said, as she dissolved into tears.
But for the most part, Tuesday was about smiles, sunshine and high-flying, progressive tricks — the sort of day Burke envisioned when she started lobbying IOC members, trying to convince them that skiing on the halfpipe was as fun to watch as snowboarding, and that the women could put on as good a show as the men.
Four years ago, Sharpe got up early and watched on TV from her living room as halfpipe skiing made its Olympic debut in Sochi.
This time, she won the gold medal.
At one point during interviews, she turned to Martinod, who plans to retire, and asked, “What’s next?”
“You know,” Martinod said, “it’s called champagne.”
Hard to imagine Sarah would have a problem with that.
More AP Olympic coverage: https://wintergames.ap.org